REVIEW: SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD (Courtyard Theatre) ★★★★

songsSongs for a New World is City Academy’s first performance from their Concert Company, and what an impressive debut it is.

Originally written and composed by Jason Robert Brown in 1995, Songs for a New World has been described as an ‘abstract musical’, due to its song cycle structure. Reconfigured for The Courtyard Theatre by Director Pippa O’Brien, the play consists of several back-to-back songs, each performance connected by one common theme: a turning point in the subjects’ lives, a movement towards a ‘new world’ for each character. It is a play proudly open to interpretation, inviting an audience to take from it what they want to, to decipher the individual, largely unconnected characters’ stories and enjoy them as singular pieces, stretched across various eras of time and presenting an array of personalities, circumstances and settings.

Such a musically demanding play requires a cast of highly skilled performers, all of whom must not be afraid of the stark limelight each scene throws upon his or her singing. Each performer was suitably confident in this stark exposure, and the audience was treated to a wonderful mixture of voices, different in range and style, and working together well as a cohesive unit, especially in the staggeringly beautiful and often complex harmonies. A ‘classic’ style of acting is not to be expected in ‘Songs’ due to the continuous song cycle, therefore the performers are juggling a number of challenges at once: acting, singing, dancing – telling a story without the usual breaks a classic musical provides.

‘Songs’ is a compilation of an emotionally staggered narrative, allowing us an intimate look into the lives of largely unconnected people from all walks of life, but bonded by way of their humanity and a common interest: facing a new way of life, whether willingly or otherwise. There is something in here to turn even the steeliest of hearts soft; judging from my fellow spectators, I wasn’t the only one feeling great surges of emotion throughout. I was on a high during the comedic scenes, for example, amidst the wonderful ‘Surabaya Santa’ number, but then welling up with sadness and a feeling of dread during ‘Flagmaker 1775’.

The choreography from Philip Michael Thomas was strong, aptly focused on drawing the utmost attention of the audience and utilising the already existing features of the Courtyard Theatre. The set design and choreography complimented one another well: the audience separated into four sections and the cast appearing from different ends of the theatre, so as to entertain all corners in equal measure. At times, the performers were staged very close to the audience, sometimes sitting next to us, other times striding between, moving from one side of the room to the other – a refreshing, innovative change from the usual one-audience-one-stage setup most frequently utilised in theatre. An appropriate level of eye-contact was employed, just enough to make the audience feel as though we were being sung ‘to’ and not ‘at’ – of which there is an important difference.

A live band can be a key ingredient to giving any performance that sense of authenticity and atmosphere; it would be a crime to put such a musically-dependent style of show on stage against purely pre-recorded music. The blend of keyboard, percussion and bass was crucial to setting the scene of each song, and the energy was absorbed effectively within the theatre. The decision to run the play as one complete act instead of two (as originally laid out in Brown’s script) allowed the suspense of the performance to build, uninterrupted, to its finale, and Musical Director Jordan Clarke’s stylistic choices across each performance balanced cohesively and to greater effect as a result.

This rendition of ‘Songs’ has been skilfully crafted by a highly experienced directorial team of industry professionals, and performed by a brilliantly assembled group of actors and musicians. Having chosen to put this production on with just a 6-week rehearsal period beforehand, the Company have done well. For an ethereal, truly meaningful experience that is rather unique in amateur theatre, I urge you to give ‘Songs’ your attention this week.

Reviewed by Laura Evans